William Shakespeare – Sonnet 128
How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.
The poet turns to the elaborate conceits that other sonneteers were accustomed to use as expressions of their desire for closer intimacy with the beloved. They would wish to be a glove which embraced her hand, a hat, a handkerchief, a glass, a lap dog, or, in the case of Barnabe Barnes, in the sonnet sequence Parthenophil and Parthenophe, the wine which his mistress drinks, which gradually works through her body and makes its way out ‘by Pleasure’s part’. (The sonnet is given below). In As You Like It, Touchstone the clown remembers how, when in love, he kissed the wooden washing paddle and the cows’ teats that his mistress had touched.
I remember, when I was in love I broke my sword upon a stone and bid him take that for coming a-night to Jane Smile; and I remember the kissing of her batlet and the cow’s dugs that her pretty chopt hands had milked; AYL.II.4.44-8.In more modern times, Pushkin desired to be the waves which lapped over his beloved’s feet, and he envied the stirrup into which she mounted her foot. (Eugene Onegin I.33.) There is nothing which will not, on occasion, fit itself to the task of bringing the lover into closer contact with the loved one. Ben Jonson is thought to have satirized the fashion in the following, in which the foppy courtier, Fastidious Briske, wishes to be his mistress’ viola da gamba:
Oh she tickles it so, that … she makes it laugh most divinely … I’ll tell you a good jest now, and you yourself shall say its a good one. I have wished myself to be that instrument, I think, a thousand times, and not so few, by heaven!
Every Man out of his Humour II.9.102-6.
But however light hearted we might think this sonnet to be, we have to see it in its setting, and remember that it is followed by a sonnet of the most profound sexual pessimism. Perhaps the contrast is deliberate, and it may be that Shakespeare wished to portray the whole range of emotion he experienced, from the heights to the depths. For this brief interlude, there is a ray of sunshine, and the poet takes pleasure in seeing his mistress playing. But the pleasure is not entirely unalloyed, for it is mixed with unfulfilled longings, and a jealousy that suspects that her favours are being too liberally bestowed on others.
A manuscript version of this sonnet is extant in the Bodleian Library. It is thought that it may contain genuine contemporary alternative readings. See the bottom of the page for the full text.
Barnabe Barnes. Parthenophil and Parthenope, Sonnets, 1593
Jove for EUROPA’s love, took shape of Bull;
And for CALISTO, played DIANA’s part:
And in a golden shower he filled full
The lap of DANAE, with celestial art.
Would I were changed but to my Mistress’ gloves,
That those white lovely fingers I might hide!
That I might kiss those hands, which mine heart loves!
Or else that chain of pearl (her neck’s vain pride)
Made proud with her neck’s veins, that I might fold
About that lovely neck, and her paps tickle!
Or her to compass, like a belt of gold!
Or that sweet wine which down her throat doth trickle,
To kiss her lips, and lie next at her heart,
Run through her veins, and pass by Pleasure’s part!
The 1609 Quarto Version
HOw oft when thou my muſike muſike playſt,
Vpon that bleſſed wood whoſe motion ſounds
With thy ſweet fingers when thou gently ſwayſt,
The wiry concord that mine eare confounds,
Do I enuie thoſe Iackes that nimble leape,
To kiſſe the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilſt my poore lips which ſhould that harueſt reape,
At the woods bouldnes by thee bluſhing ftand.
To be ſo tikled they would change their ſtate,
And ſituation with thoſe dancing chips,
Ore whome their fingers walke with gentle gate,
Making dead wood more bleſt then liuing lips,
Since ſauſie Iackes ſo happy are in this,
Giue them their fingers,me thy lips to kiſſe.
1. How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,How oft when thou = how often when you.
my music = you, who are my music and my delight. Compare Sonn. 8, line 1, which also uses the word twice in one line:
Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?2. Upon that blessed wood whose motion soundsthat blessed wood = the wooden soundboard of the harpsichord or virginals; the entire instrument (which was mostly made of wood). Or, more probably, the keys, which were made of wood, and probably not covered with ivory at this date. So also woods’ in line 8 and dead wood in 12. However OED does not record this use of woods, equivalent to the modern word ‘ivories’. See the comments on jacks below (l.5.)
whose motion sounds = whose motion causes the instrument to give sound; the motion of which resounds.3. With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’stgently swayest – either the harpsichordist gently sways while she is playing the instrument, or the word means ‘to control, to master’. gentle also had the meaning ‘well-bred, of gentlemanly birth’. See line 11 below.4. The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,the wiry concord = the concord of sound made by the strings of the virginals.
my ear confounds = mixes sound and pleasure in my ears. From the Latin confundere to pour together, to mix. The word here evidently has a more gentle meaning than in the earlier sonnets when it implied ‘bringing to utter ruin’, as for example
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound 60.5. Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,jacks = the pegs attached to quills which plucked the strings of the virginal. They were attached by levers to the keys of the keyboard, but, being within the instrument, did not actually touch the player’s hand. The poet is probably referring loosely to the woods, or keys, as OED seems to think. (OED, Jack n.(1), 14. In the virginal, spinet, and harpsichord: An upright piece of wood fixed to the back of the key-lever, and fitted with a quill which plucked the string as the jack rose on the key’s being pressed down. (By Shakes. and some later writers erron. applied to the key.) The jacks could certainly be seen leaping up and down. But in most harpsichord music the speed at which the notes were played would also give the impression that the keys were leaping to meet the fingers of the player’s hand.
leap – the word is sexually suggestive, as are many others in the sonnet. leaping-houses were brothels, as in the following :
What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? unless hours were cups of Sack…and dials the signs of leaping-houses. 1H4.I.2.9
It is not known if the phrase ‘nimble Jack’ was current at the time.6. To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,the tender inward of thy hand – not necessarily the palm, as it could also apply to the underside of the fingers. The Elizabethans made a distinction between a formal kiss of the top of the hand in greeting, and a more intimate kiss made when the lover raised the inside of the hand of his beloved to his lips. I think we would make the same distinction today. See GBE p.245, note 6. And compare this from A Winter’s Tale:
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers WT.I.2.115
… Still virginalling / Upon his palm? WT.I.1.25-6.7. Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,that harvest = the harvest of your kisses.8. At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
woods’ – keys. See the note above, line 2. I think woods is best treated here as a plural noun.
by thee blushing stand – although the subject is ostensibly my poor lips, it is evidently the poet himself who stands enviously beside the virginals while his mistress plays. His lips are flushed with envy, anger and desire.
Note that the first sentence does not end till this point, as though it were a melody played with many variations.9. To be so tickled, they would change their stateTo be so tickled = in order to be tickled as the keys have been tickled (by your fingers). Tickling obviously is either a childish activity, or one associated with love-play.
they would change = they would wish to change
their state = their nature, their composition. I.e. his lips desire to be changed to wood and take the place of the keys.10. And situation with those dancing chips,situation = place, location. This seems to be its only meaning in Shakespeare, who uses the word only here and in Henry IV Part II.
Much more, in this great work,
Which is almost to pluck a kingdom down
And set another up, should we survey
The plot of situation and the model, 2H4.I.3.48-51.
More decisive however is the following from Henry V, where the plural is used:FL. I think it is in Macedon where Alexander is porn. I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the ‘orld, I warrant you sall find, in the comparisons between Macedon and Monmouth, that the situations, look you, is both alike. H5.IV.7.24-27.
chips = woods, keys. See OED.1a and 3, which gives this example.11. O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,O’er whom = over which (i.e. the chips), but suggestive also of the ‘saucy Jacks’.
thy – Q wrongly gives their, as also in l.14. The error, which is common in Q, is emended by all editors.
gentle gait = well-bred pace and deportment; caressing movement.12. Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.dead wood = the keys of the keyboard. Possibly also the deadness of impotence.
more blessed = more fortunate, happier.13. Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
saucy jacks = impudent keys of the keyboard; but with obvious reference to other vulgar and pushy men, his sexual rivals, with whom she was familiar; and to penises. Compare, in the preface to Laura, by Robert Tofte (1597): so we, by your countenances, shall be sufficiently furnished to encounter against any foul-mouthed JACKS whatsoever. See also SB p.439. The sonnet is deliberately laden with sexual innuendo. One imagines that having one’s mistress sit at the virginals to play the latest love song could be quite sexy. (See the illustration above, and at the bottom of the page. The title of the book is suggestive. Other female musicians are shown to the left). Shakespeare does not often use the word ‘virginal’, but when he does it is always in a sexual context, most explicitly in Two Noble Kinsmen, a non-canonical play, but large sections of it being attributed to Shakespeare:
Pal. She met him in an arbour:
What did she there, coz? Play o’ the virginals?
Arc. Something she did Sir.
Pal. Made her groan a month for’t;
Or two, or three, or ten. TNK.III.3.33-6.
Other quotations are given above, at line 6. Note that the Puritans strongly disapproved of music and dancing, as it encouraged too free and easy a contact between the sexes.14. Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.
them = the saucy jacks. Probably a not too hidden reference to fellatio, since the line could be read as ‘Let your fingers do the work for them, (the saucy Jacks), but for me, let it be your lips’.
1. How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,
2. Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
3. With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st
4. The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
5. Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,
6. To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
7. Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,
8. At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
9. To be so tickled, they would change their state
10. And situation with those dancing chips,
11. O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
12. Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.
13. Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
14. Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.
How oft when thou, dear dearest music playest
Upon that blessed wood whose motions sounds,
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently swayst
The wiry concord that mine ear consounds,
O how I envy those keys that nimble leaps,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reaped
At the wood boldness by thee blushing stand,
To be so touched the fain would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips
O’er whom your fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blessed than living lips.
Since then those keys so happy are in this,
Give them your fingers, me your lips to kiss.
Bodleian Ms Rawl. poet 152, fol. 34′. c. 1613-20. Spelling and punctuation have been modernised.
The most interesting differences are ‘keys’ for ‘Jacks’ in l.5, ‘touched’ for ‘tickled’ and ‘the faine’ for ‘they’ in l.9, and ‘then those keys’ for ‘saucy jacks’ in l.13. JK reads ‘they fain’ for ‘the fain’ of l.9. I have based this version on that given by KDJ p.466.